WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden met privately with a group of George Floyd’s family members at the White House on Tuesday, ensuring them he still hopes to sign police reform legislation named in honor of their brother, father and uncle, who was killed one year earlier by a Minneapolis police officer.
At the very moment that many in the family were gathered at the seat of American power, Floyd’s younger sister Bridgett was at a memorial event in downtown Minneapolis, expressing her frustration over the lack of progress.
“My message to the president: Get your people in order,” she said.
She did not join her family in Washington, she said, because Biden had not reached his goal of signing the legislation by the anniversary of her brother’s death. She didn’t see the point in traveling to Washington unless it was for a bill-signing.
“I think Biden needs to make it right,” she said. “He broke his promise, but I’m going to give him a couple more weeks to see what he comes up with. It don’t take that long to hold these police accountable for what they do. There’s been a lot of names added to the list after my brother’s death. And still nothing is being done.”
The different approaches within the family reflect the broader public feelings of optimism that systemic change is possible, and dimming hopes, given it hasn’t come a full year after the uprising spurred by Floyd’s death. The milestonecomes at a time of increasing crime in many cities, and amid a vigorous debate over accountability for police officers following a number of high-profile shootings of Black people.
Floyd died after being held handcuffed and facedown on a South Minneapolis street during an investigation related to a fake $20 bill. Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer who knelt on Floyd’s neck and back for more than nine minutes, was convicted last month of murder and manslaughter. Three other officers at the scene — Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao — are accused of aiding and abetting, and they are set to go on trial in March. All four are facing federal civil rights charges in Floyd’s death.
Video of the incident sparked national protests and calls for changes in both legislation and in American society.
Biden felt the impact of the events, developing a deep connection with many in the Floyd family and reorienting his presidential campaign to focus more closely on racial inequities. During his first joint address to Congress last month, he called for legislation to be on his desk by the anniversary of Floyd’s death.
While the House in March passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, the bill remains stalled over differences in several provisions. The legislation would implement a variety of changes, including banning the use of chokeholds, strengthening federal civil rights laws, and creating a national database to track officer misconduct.
The biggest sticking point is over ending qualified immunity, which would make it easier for individual law enforcement officers to be sued over their actions on the job.
During his meeting with family members, Biden told them that he was frustrated that the legislation hasn’t passed but he said, according to family attorney Ben Crump, that he was willing to be patient and “make sure it’s the right bill, not a rushed bill.”
“He showed concern. Genuinely he wanted to know how we are doing, and how he can support us,” Brandon Williams, the nephew of George Floyd, told reporters outside the White House. “He said of the deadline, he’s not happy about it not being met. But all in all, he just wants the bill to be right and meaningful, and that it holds George’s legacy intact.”
Philonise Floyd, George Floyd’s brother, said Biden was genuine and kind in remembering his brother. But he also urged Congress to do more.
“If you can make federal laws to protect the bird, which is the bald eagle, you can make federal laws to protect people of color,” he said.
At memorials to Floyd around the country, there were mixed emotions over whether the last year has brought the country closer to change.
In Minneapolis, a city still recovering from the unrest after Floyd’s killing, hundreds of people gathered at events across the city to mark the anniversary of his death and reiterate calls for police reform and racial justice.
At 38th and Chicago, the intersection where Floyd died, the atmosphere was alternately somber — with scores of people pausing to place flowers and reflect at the spot where he was killed — and joyous, with people eating and dancing in the street as part of a celebration of Chauvin’s conviction, which many described as a first step toward police accountability.
“But this is just one step, and we have miles and miles to go,” said Charles McMillian, one of several bystanders who witnessed Floyd’s arrest and tried to come to the man’s aid.
McMillian, who testified against Chauvin, was given a hero’s welcome as he arrived in the area known as George Floyd Square. He was mobbed by strangers who hugged him and asked for selfies.
But McMillian soon had to excuse himself and walk home. Underneath his shirt, he was wearing a bullet-resistant vest, which he had put on after shots rang out at the memorial earlier in the day forcing volunteers and members of the news media to dive for cover.
As many as 30 gunshots were heard, according to witnesses. A man with a gunshot wound later appeared at a hospital, according to police. It was one of several recent instances of violence in the area in a city that has seen a dramatic uptick in shootings in recent months.
McMillian said he had put on the vest to protect himself. “What can you do?” he said with a shrug. “That’s the way it goes now.”
Biden has spoken out about police reform several times over the past two months, including an address to the nation last month after Chauvin was found guilty.
But on Tuesday he chose to focus on more private moments with the family.
“He really wants it to be a private meeting because he has a personal relationship,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said. “And he wanted to hear how they’re doing, give them an update on his efforts to sign a bill into law, and ensure there’s long-overdue accountability.”
Psaki said that Biden “obviously was hoping for more progress to be made by today,” and that it was set as “the unofficial deadline” for passing legislation. But she said the White House was still encouraged by some of the congressional discussions, and suggested that Biden was strategically trying to keep some distance.
“We have also been respecting the space needed for the negotiators to have these discussions about where they can find common ground and where they can find agreement,” Psaki said.
She said that White House officials have been in frequent contact with civil rights groups, police reform groups and advocates. Biden has been on the phone with several key lawmakers working on the legislation, she said.
After his meeting with the family, Biden said, based on his discussions with congressional negotiators, he was hopeful that sometime after Memorial Day there will be a potential deal.
“To deliver real change, we must have accountability when law enforcement officers violate their oaths, and we need to build lasting trust between the vast majority of the men and women who wear the badge honorably and the communities they are sworn to serve and protect,” he said in a statement. “We can and must have both accountability and trust in our justice system.”
Biden has taken particular inspiration from Floyd’s young daughter, Gianna. He said that the first thing she did was give him a hug, tell him she was hungry and ask for snacks.
“Those of you that have been through personal loss know that although every anniversary is, you’re happy people remember, it also brings everything back immediately like it happened that day,” he said. “It takes a lot of courage to go through it. And they’ve been wonderful.”
In addition to the hourlong gathering at the White House, Floyd family members held meetings with several congressional officials — including Sens. Tim Scott, R-S.C., and Cory Booker, D-N.J., the two leading negotiators in the Senate.
“The protests in the streets helped the momentum for change in the House of Representatives,” Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., a lead House negotiator, said during an appearance with the family. “I stand here to renew the commitment that we will get this bill on President Biden’s desk.”
At one point Tuesday morning, Philonise Floyd stood inside a wood-paneled reception room with Sèvres vases, a George Washington portrait, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., just behind him, and reflected on his brother.
“He set the world in a rage,” he said. “And we all said enough is enough.”
He applauded the House for passing legislation in response, he urged the Senate to do the same, and then he turned toward his niece and asked, “Your dad’s going to do what?”
“Change the world,” Gianna, 7, said in a small voice.
“If a child can see that, we as adults — we all should be able to see that,” Floyd said. “We all should be able to work together.”